Skip to main content

Prof finds sweet spot in economics of sports

Brad Humphreys

Becoming a professor of economics, any professor for that matter, requires, among other hurtles, the dissertation. This intellectual labor is not to be undertaken lightly, as any academic mentor will advise, nor are dissertation topics to be selected without serious consideration and copious grave deliberation.

Certainly Brad Humphreys realized this when, in the 1990s, he commenced his dissertation at Johns Hopkins University. He was in the right place but at the wrong time.

His dissertation examined inventories during recessions from a macroeconomic viewpoint. Unfortunately, the nation was in an extended period of economic growth with only a couple minor recessions, and there was little interest among the intellectual community greeting the promising young academician and his thoughts on inventories in recession. "If there aren't any recessions, no one cares about inventories during recessions. I was in an area of expertise in which interest had completely dried up," he recalled.

However, at about that same time Baltimore, Md., the home of John Hopkins and also known as the crab cake capital of the world, was luring the Cleveland Browns football team with the promise of a tax-payer subsidized brand new stadium. Indeed, in early November 1995, with the Cleveland Browns having a pretty good season with four wins and five losses, owner Art Modell announced that he had signed a deal to relocate the Browns to Baltimore.

Interestingly, on Nov. 7, Cleveland voters approved a tax to remodel Cleveland Stadium, while in Baltimore an economic impact study was claiming that the new stadium would bring jobs and prosperity to Baltimore.

Did a light go off in young Dr. Humphreys' head? Perhaps. At the very least he saw some thought-provoking possibilities for academic papers in the area of sports, economics and public policy.

"I read the economic impact study and I didn't believe a word of it," he said. "It was rubbish." He and colleague Dr. Dennis Coates, professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, wrote what amounted to a rebuttal of the study, and Humphreys' career in the study of sports economics was launched. Since then he has earned tenure at three universities and has published extensively on topics such as economic incentives to lose, aversion to live games, sports mega events, gambling, and gender issues in sports economics, among many other topics.

He is currently looking at another characteristic of sport stadiums and arenas in metropolitan areas and why taxpayers usually approve subsidies for these facilities. He is trying to understand, for example, the effects of stadiums and arenas on home prices, which are generally higher near stadiums. "It appears that although tangible benefits of stadiums are doubtful, there are intangible benefits," he said.

Born in Princeton, W.Va., Humphreys earned a management degree at WVU in 1985 and a degree in economics the next year. He was awarded a master's degree and Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins in 1990 and 1995, respectively. His paper titled "Sports Betting, Sports Bettors and Sports Gambling Policy" was awarded a prize for best presentation at the ninth annual Hamburg Conference on Sports and Economics, in Hamburg, Germany, in 2009.

He was a Fulbright Scholar in the Czech Republic from 2001-02, and Prague is his favorite place in the world because of its history and culture. "The Czech Republic has a rich culture that has been obscured because of its recent past under the former Soviet Union," he commented. "Prague, for example, has three symphony orchestras. The culture is truly unbelievable."

While at Johns Hopkins, Humphreys met Dr. Jane Ruseski, recently appointed associate director of the College's Bureau of Business and Economics. They have been married for 24 years. Ruseski is from Connecticut. 

In addition to teaching graduate courses, Humphreys introduced a new undergraduate course at WVU this spring, which already has more than 30 students enrolled. Not surprisingly, it is The Economics of Sports, a 400-level elective. He also teaches undergraduates macroeconomic principles.

His advice to new teachers: lecture topics must be relevant. Indeed, educators, he believes, must compete for students' attention more now than in the past. Perhaps social media is part of the problem, he speculated. To compete, he bases much of his lectures around the now-waning Great Recession. "This is something they have all lived through," he said. "So, I like to show them what has been happening during the past few years in macroeconomic terms. You really must make it relevant and immediate."

Calling himself a "foodie" Humphreys affiliates with the slow food movement, which was founded by Carlo Petrini in 1986 as an alternative to fast food. Those who align with this thinking believe in preserving traditional and regional cuisines that encourage farming of plants, seeds and livestock characteristic of the local ecosystem.

"It's all about celebrating the local cuisine and taking time to really enjoy food," he commented. He also appreciates wine and collects wines. Morgantown, he said, for a city of its size, "has some pretty good restaurants." In fact, they are better than those in Champaign, Ill., where he taught in the Department of Recreation, Sport and Tourism from 2004-07. Before that he was in the economics department at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, from 1995 to 2004. He came to WVU from the University of Alberta, where he taught from 2007-13.

Humphreys is editor of Contemporary Economic Policy and has served on the editorial boards of numerous other journals. He travels to Europe two to three times a year to visit and collaborate with colleagues in several countries, from which he collects soccer scarfs as souvenirs.

Baltimore, he said, does have just claim to being the crab cake capital of the world. "Maryland crab cakes are better than any I have had elsewhere," he said.